Is blackness a credible threat?

When I was 17 years old, I received my G2 “graduated learner’s” license. The way Ontario’s system worked (or maybe still does), you could get a permit at age 16, but if you were driving, you had to be in the company of someone with at least 5 years’ experience at a full ‘G’ license. For many people, myself included, that meant I had to be in the company of my parents to drive. Not exactly the freedom of the open road that I had fantasized about. And so when I got my ‘G2’, allowing me to drive unaccompanied, I was well chuffed. Gone were the days of riding shotgun and being forced to listen to whatever talk or jazz station my dad preferred – control of the radio would finally be mine!

My neighbourhood at the time was populated with a large number of young men who would spend their allowance (I imagine) buying really expensive stereo equipment to put in their shitty cars. It was a rare night in Brampton when I didn’t pull up next to someone pumping some obnoxious dance ‘tune’ at a stoplight. In my childish glee, I used to switch over to the classical station, crank my own volume, and blast away some Brahms symphony or a Bach partita or whatever was playing at the time. It never failed to get a reaction – mostly puzzlement, sometimes amusement, occasionally irritation as they realized they were the targets of mockery.

It is, I suppose, lucky for me that I was not 17 years old in Florida:

Davis was shot to death in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23 after Michael Dunn, 45, said he felt threatened by the two black teenagers and one young black man sitting with Davis in an SUV. Dunn told police he argued with the group over the volume of their music, saw a shotgun emerge from one of the SUV’s windows then, fired his handgun eight or nine times before fleeing. Three of Dunn’s bullets struck and killed Davis, a lawyer for the boy’s family said Tuesday. Police said those in the SUV were unarmed.

Of course, it should be noted that while the presence of Mr. Dunn’s weapon at the scene is indisputable, police have found no evidence whatsoever of a weapon in Jordan Davis’ care. It should also be noted that Mr. Dunn, who claims to have had a weapon pointed at him, did not bother to call the police to tell them about an SUV full of armed gangsters, one of whom he had just bravely shot three times. It should also be noted that Jordan Davis had never owned a weapon, was not involved in any illegal activity, and had not been doing anything criminal when Mr. Dunn decided to execute him. It should also be noted that Mr. Dunn chose to involve himself in the altercation, out of what I can only assume is a grotesque sense of entitlement to tell black teenagers what appropriate behaviour is.

So the question becomes this: how is it possible for someone to murder a 17 year-old kid for doing nothing more threatening than listening to music that was “too loud” for the sensitive ears of Mr. Dunn? Here’s how – Florida’s Stand Your Ground gun law. Mr. Dunn, seeing the existence of Jordan Davis as enough of a threat to justify killing him but not enough of a threat to not approach him and demand capitulation, was apparently within his legal rights to open fire on a vehicle full of teenagers and then speed away from the scene without the need to notify the police. It’s amazing how often the claim of a threat is credible, at least when it’s a white person being “threatened” by a black one.

And so the question must be asked: what was it that so spooked Mr. Dunn that he was trigger-ready? Are we to believe that Mr. Dunn saw a shotgun being pointed at him, and then went into his glove compartment/holster, took the safety off, fired 8 times, and then took off before a single shot could be fired from the shotgun? Is Mr. Dunn a distant relative of Quicksilver? No, it is far more likely that Mr. Dunn had the gun in his hand when he pulled up to the car. He was expecting a threat that would require the use of lethal force. This is not the case of an innocent, law-abiding, responsible gun owner being in the wrong place at the wrong time and defending himself according to his 2nd-amendment right (the right-wing fantasy); this was a guy sauntering up to a car full of kids and telling them what to do, his confidence engorged with the help of a gunmetal cock-surrogate. The only thing missing from the story is the word “boy” and a lynch mob.

So what was it that convinced Michael Dunn that he was headed for danger? Does he approach all cars with music that is playing “too loud” with the expectation that firearms will be needed? A terrifying (albeit possible) thought. But again – if the prospect of talking to a car full of people is so threatening to Mr. Dunn, why would he insert himself into that situation? And at what point do we recognize the racist ideology underpinning the swaggering entitlement with which an armed middle-aged white man approaches a car full of black teenagers and demands that they turn down their music? Are we that committed to the idea that race couldn’t possibly factor into whatever poison was running through Michael Dunn’s mind? Through George Zimmerman’s? Through Louis Campbell’s?

There doesn’t seem to be any way around it. Blackness, on its own, is perceived as threatening. The “shotgun” that Mr. Dunn saw that night was a conjuration of his own unchallenged and unexplored racist biases. It was the collision between Dunn’s fear of blackness and the ego-inflation of his own whiteness (although most likely this part was not cognitively available to Dunn’s conscious mind) that caused him to pull up, pull out, spray, and then walk away. The difference, however, between the imagined shotgun and the one that killed Jordan Davis is that the bullets that blackness fires only ever seem to hit black bodies like his.

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P.S. It is stories like this one that remind me of how little patience I have for white men who compare anti-black racism to their bogey-man version of “Shroedinger’s Rapist”. When white men are subject to disproportionate gun violence at the hands of women (women who randomly insert themselves into the lives of those men), then you will have the beginnings of a point. Just the beginnings, mind you. Until then, I think my people have been exploited enough without the need for you to pile on with your whingeing butthurt bullshit, thank you.


  1. says

    They really need to repeal those SYG laws, its just sad and crazy this keeps happening.

    As a minor note the driving laws still work like that in Ontario.

  2. eric says

    it is far more likely that Mr. Dunn had the gun in his hand when he pulled up to the car. He was expecting a threat that would require the use of lethal force.

    I think its more likely that he drives around with his pistol in the glove box and with the safety on. I’d guess that what happened in this case is that he took the time to get it out and shoot because he knew he wasn’t in immediate danger. The rest is post-hoc lying.

  3. mythbri says

    I’ve never been there, so I’ll grant you Miami. 😉

    These “Stand Your Ground” laws seem to be an extension of the Castle Doctrine, which is absurd. You don’t carry your Castle with you wherever you go, and there is something gravely wrong with a law whose legality is invoked solely on the word of the person still left standing at the end of the altercation. It seems as though it incentivizes becoming the aggressor, rather than lawful self-defense.

    And the way that the law is applied (or, in the case of this woman, not applied) has a nasty way of punishing people of color for other people’s racism.

  4. Psychopomp Gecko says

    As someone living in Florida, far away from Miami, and in exactly the kind of place that would do something like this, I would hope no one saws me away from the rest of y’all. And I’d like for them to get rid of this damn law. We tried it, and all it seems to do is make it easier for people to shoot each other and get away with it, with racism playing a pretty big role.

    Some might say I can’t weigh all the cases of SYG being invoked to shoot someone to even give a definitive answer to how many were the result of racism, but I have a very simple answer for this. Doesn’ t matter. If the law has no real benefits and lets people commit 3, 2, or even just 1 murder based purely on race, it is a bad law.

    And it has no benefits. Getting rid of the law doesn’ t make it a crime to defend yourself. You always have that right. If you are in danger of being hurt, you can still pull a gun and shoot the guy whether it is Stand Your Ground or not. So had there been an actual shotgun, the guy would still have been within his rights. But maybe he’d feel less like pulling guns on people who have loud music on if he knew he couldn’t hide behind a law that would ask questions last after he shot first.

    But then, this is Florida, where the governor rejected money to build a high speed rail despite gas costs and the need for jobs and where they put an idiotic drug testing law on the books despite having to know it would be challenged successfully (and that the governor’s wife was the one holding his stock in medical company who did drug testing in Florida…).

    There are some nice parts of my state, but the areas in people’s heads could stand some renovation.

  5. sumdum says

    Just after the Trayvon Martin case there was a bit on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He had one of his crew get a make-over, from a threatening thug, to, add glasses, a book, cause nothing is as non-threatening as a nerd, cut and comb the hair, put him in a suit, oh shit! It’s Malcolm X! It was a funny bit, but also came to the same conclusion as you did. Being black is seen as threatening in and of itself.

  6. smrnda says

    The problem with ‘feeling threatened’ being reason enough to shoot is that white people have been taught by society that they are entitled to feel threatened by any young Black man out there. Society and the law treat these feelings of ‘being threatened’ as legitimate and even make accommodations for them in the legal code.

    historically minority populations have often been the target of violence, both from civilians and the police but somehow, in spite of these very real threats against non-white people, society doesn’t really treat Black people’s fear of the police, or white gun-toting vigilantes seriously. It’s a clear and total double standard.

  7. Brad says

    Yeah, that speculation doesn’t seem reasonable at all. The murderer is a piece of shit, but elmer fudd is cartoon character .

  8. F [disappearing] says

    Right. Someone points a shotgun at me, and I take the time to open the glovebox and pull and turn off the safety of my weapon, exposing myself the whole time, then raise and aim the weapon, (which you would think would have provoked the already-delayed discharge of the imaginary shotgun) firing 8 shots with still no return fire, and I think I behaved reasonably. Uh huh.

  9. Martha says

    How many young black men have to die before they get rid of that god-awful law? And how can anyone have thought it was a good idea in the first place?

  10. razzlefrog says

    Hey, finally, I can comment again! I know this is irrelevant, I just haven’t been able to for quite a while. And boy was there material to comment on…

  11. says

    how can anyone have thought it was a good idea in the first place?

    You have to not think very much. And if you accidentally do think, you have to not care very much. In other words, you have to be a conservative.

  12. Joe Dunes says

    Not entirely apropos: is there any way that “butt-hurt” isn’t homophobic in origin?

    On Topic: an important corollary to Blackness as threatening is that, let’s say we have a white man and a black man committing the exact same objectively threatening action, the white man will be perceived as less threatening.

    In Michigan, my home state, the stories of danger in Flint and Detroit are always, in some way, related to the blackness (real or otherwise) of those cities. (You wouldn’t believe, well you would, how often the Bloods and Crips come up in discussions about Detroit.)

  13. says

    is there any way that “butt-hurt” isn’t homophobic in origin?

    I have no knowledge of the origin of the phrase, but have never understood it to reference anal sex (or uniquely homosexual men having anal sex). It might do.

  14. No Light says

    ‘Stand Your Ground’ is apparently sweet talk for “Feel free to shoot anyone EWB -Existing While Black”.

    How many more young men have to die?

  15. fastlane says

    While this is horrible, I do have to say that I find (mostly young kids, but not always) people in cars with their stereo so loud, I can’t hear my own music to be very irritating, and should be a ticketable offense (it is in a few rare counties). I have a few in my apt complex that seem to forget they have neighbors when they drive through the parking lot at 2am.

    I wouldn’t shoot them, though….

  16. says

    That’s the image it always conjured in my mind. Well, not necessarily the ‘spanking’ part, but a little kid falling down on his ass and then bawling his head off.

  17. freemage says

    Young people are more likely to crank their music than fogies like myself (though if I’ve got the windows down and Bohemian Rhapsody comes on, all bets are off), but it’s definitely not an exclusively urban black phenomenon; throughout the ’80s, you couldn’t go outside in my white suburban neighborhood without being assailed by Metallica, Def Leppard and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

  18. freemage says

    You know, this whole mess reminds me of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. The movie–or rather, the discussion about the movie I had with black friends after we watched it–was the first step in my (far too slow) process of understanding my racial privilege.

    And I remember, even then, being so shocked at the scene where Sal smashes Radio Raheem’s boom-box that I found it literally incredible–surely, no one would be so outraged by loud music to start smashing a radio, right? This was just Spike Lee’s way of justifying the subsequent anger, and not a REAL representation of race-relations in America, right? I mean, hell, I had black friends!

    Yeah, I was a privileged little fuckhead back then. Still privileged (accepting that I can’t NOT be privileged, even if I want it so, is probably one of the tougher lessons of social justice awareness generally), but I at least hope I’m less of a fuckhead.

  19. eric says


    It seems as though it incentivizes becoming the aggressor, rather than lawful self-defense.

    It does, it is designed to let people legally shoot first. Back when the Trayvon Martin case got started, I vaguely recall hearing that even Florida prosecutors were strongly opposed to the law, because it made it practically impossible to prosecute gang killings. The folks left standing just say they had reasonable suspicion the other side was going to shoot. Which is probably the truth in many gang-on-gang encounters.

    For similar reasons it also appears to make gun duels legal as a side effect. After all, if you and I agree to show up and try and shoot each other at 50 paces or whatever, I now have a very reasonable suspicion that after you walk 50 paces you will turn and try and kill me, so I am justified in turning and shooting you.

  20. says

    If you look at the study I link to in the body of the post, the fears of Florida prosecutors seem to be largely unfounded. Judges and juries seem to have zero problem convicting black people when they shoot anyone, regardless of the presence of a Stand Your Ground law. So we can all rest easy.

  21. bibliobecki says

    My sister lives in Florida with her two kids. My nephew is twelve, but he’s a big boy and often mistaken for much older. Not that it really matters, since age doesn’t seem to make much of difference in perceived threat level when it comes to black boys/men in the U.S., but every single time I hear about something like this happening the first thing I think is “Please don’t let it be him. Please let it not be him.” Wishing fervently for his and my niece’s safety is the closest I’ve come to praying in years.

    I’ve never been to Miami, but unless I were to fly directly in or out, Florida is a place I hope never to visit again.

  22. says

    I agree with both of these posts. I regularly yell at people who are playing loud music late at night under my apartment window. However, these people are a) up to my own early 30s in age, and b) mostly white in this neighborhood; the ethnicity of the people playing loud music varies by where you are in the city, like the ethnicities of the inhabitants generally. That said, even in my fantasies, the most I would do in response would be a hypothetical ‘EMP gun’ that would kill their stereos, and as it is yelling “It’s 2 am, some of us are trying to sleep” usually works, IME.

  23. says

    Crommunist’s comparison to a lynch mob is well founded. While the articles might not mention it, I’d bet any money you want that the word ‘boy’ figured prominently in the verbal exchange, and quite probably words starting with N as well. I would also argue that SYG just expands the pool of people who can shoot someone for EWB; the cops have had that right basically forever.

  24. Rebecca Kemnitz says

    Even if you see someone as a threat or possible threat there are appropriate ways to handle it. When I come home at night I put my brights on when I drive into my alley. If someone seems sketch I might drive around the block till they leave just to be on the safe side. The problem is that I think many folks believe even if that person wasn’t doing anything wrong, the world is a better place without them around. We put such a low to even negative value on black lives here.

  25. Rebecca Kemnitz says

    ‘[G]unmetal cock-surrogate’ is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Our fucked up idea of masculinity also comes into play.

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